(Image via Keith Allison / Flickr)
C.J. Beathard was on absolutely nobody’s radar in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
But he was on Kyle Shanahan’s, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who evaluates college quarterbacks completely different than most others around the NFL. If you play under center in a pro-style offense, like Beathard did in Iowa, like Kirk Cousins did at Michigan State, Shanahan can see for his own two eyes that a prospect can execute his offense. Shanahan knows what he’s looking for.
Asked a handful of times in interviews about what he learned most as the offensive coordinator of the Redskins from 2010-2013, Shanahan will allude to the Robert Griffin III situation.
“I went through a lot of different things in Washington, different quarterback situations, different schemes, being under the microscope out there and dealing with the media,” Shanahan said at the combine in February. “Having the same last name as the head coach, also, will put you out there a lot more than a normal coordinator. Going through Washington helped me a lot.”
Forget about Griffin and Dan Snyder clashing with Kyle and Mike for a second and just keep it on the football field. Griffin came from an unorthodox spread system at Baylor, and despite the hype, Kyle truly had no idea how the supreme athlete with a strong arm would fit into his play-action passing attack that demanded accuracy and processing. So to bridge the NFL gap and give him a chance for success right away, Shanahan simplified his system and ran a non-traditional offense, where Griffin won a rookie of the year trophy and Washington won the NFC East in 2012. A year later thinking he was invincible, Griffin withered in the Shanahan’s traditional offense in 2013 — something Shanahan told me RGIII and his father demanded he play in because they both thought he could handle it.
The situation of not having seen Griffin play at all in a pro style offense gave Shanahan some of those battle-tested scars he mentions. It’s changed his philosophy on when and where to draft quarterbacks. Drafting a bust at the position will cost you your job down the line.
After a few years of seasoning as Houston’s offensive coordinator, Shanahan recognized he needed a backup plan if Griffin indeed fell flat on his face. That’s exactly why the Redskins drafted Cousins in the fourth round of that same draft as Griffin, a bizarre move when it happened the day the team introduced RGIII on stage at Fed Ex Field. Griffin having sustained success as a pocket quarterback was a total coin flip. Cousins had the traits Shanahan loves — the same ones he mentioned about Beathard — and I’ve been told they had a second-round grade on him. Washington pulled the trigger in the fourth. Cousins is set to make nearly $24 million this season, Griffin is currently out of the league.
When Shanahan evaluates a college quarterback coming from a spread system, he’s got to be absolutely floored by that prospects arm, decision making, pocket awareness, love of football, intelligence. Rarely can anyone check off all of those boxes, and if there any slight concerns, often times that player is completely eliminated from the draft board. On Thursday, Shanahan said he liked Mitch Trubisky, but clearly not enough for the No. 2 overall pick like the Chicago Bears did. Shanahan is an extremely tough grader on the college quarterbacks coming out, meaning the 49ers are working with fewer prospects on their board than most teams. And that’s okay with Shanahan.
Once he saw Beathard was able to make throws on tape from an offense that asked him to play like a true NFL quarterback, Shanahan dug deeper into the person of Beathard. He comes from a football family where his grandfather Bobby drafted Hall of Fame players and won three Super Bowls with the Redskins. Shanahan mentioned the word fearless — and he doesn’t give that label to any player.
For the first time since Jim Harbaugh drafted Colin Kaepernick in 2011, the 49ers have a developmental quarterback on the roster. He’s obviously not the strapping athlete with a rocket arm that made Kaepernick unique. Speaking of Kap, he was never really able to escape from the spread quarterback label either. Not a coincidence because he doesn’t have a true NFL pocket passer skill set. Remember Shanahan said Kaepernick would be better for a the system he ran with RGIII at the combine, rather than his traditional offense.
Beathard himself has some traits that turned scouts off — some hesitation in the pocket, sacked 58 times in two seasons, a completion percentage of 57 percent.
But Shanahan has seen enough traits he likes to let Beathard slow cook in the crock pot while Brian Hoyer gets the operation up and running and while Cousins’ arrival hangs in the balance for 2018. The Iowa quarterback has good footwork, keeps his eyes downfield, has athleticism to roll out on the boot leg.
And the absolute key: Shanahan has already seen this with his own eyes. Not solely shotgun snaps and big plays down field. Real, authentic, quarterback skills that will translate. He learned all this the hard way with RGIII and he wouldn’t change any of the chapters in his story. Kirk Cousins was a bizarre pick in 2012, just as C.J. Beathard was in 2017. Sometimes bizarre works out for the best.
“I don’t feel it’s necessarily my first time being a head coach after being done in Washington,” Shanahan said. “But it’s good experience. I wouldn’t take Washington back for anything.”